Today is All Saints Day, the day when the Western Church remembers and celebrates all of the holy people through whom God has graced the Church throughout its centuries. I’ve observed this holiday casually in the past, but this year it’s taking on a new depth of meaning for me. Yesterday, I shared a post at the Conversations Journal Blog called “All Who Walk in the Way of Perfection.” In it, I wrote about how I’ve developed a relationship with St. Mark the Ascetic, or “Mark the Monk.” And I think relationship really is the proper word. As Valerie Hess says in her All Saints Day post on the Conversations blog, the dead saints are alive in Christ, and the communion of saints which we confess in the Creed means that these heroes of the faith means that we can relate to them now just as we relate to our living brothers and sisters in Christ.
Recently I read another work by Mark the Monk which opened up the communion of the saints in an even deeper way for me. In a piece called “A Monastic Superior’s Disputation With an Attorney,” Mark presents an account of an elder monk debating the virtues of withdrawal from the world with a fairly worldly lawyer. Near the end, as the elder is debriefing the conversation with the monks who serve under him, the elder says this:
“Do you wish to know more fully and clearly how all the apostles have entered into communion with us by means of thought, word, and deed and how, through this communion, they have taken responsibility for our trials and temptations? Using thought, they open up and explain the Scriptures for us, commending prophetic utterances, persuading us to believe in Christ as the Redeemer, giving us the assurance to worship him as Son of God by nature, praying for us, weeping, dying, and whatever other faithful actions come from thought. By means of words they exhort, admonish, reproach, rebuke our lack of faith, cast in our teeth our ignorance, interpret the Scriptures, clarify the times, confess Christ, preaching that he is the crucified one, the incarnate Word . . . . By means of deed, they are persecuted, sneered at, made indigent, afflicted, mistreated, imprisoned, killed, and whatever other things they suffered on our behalf. In this way, then, for the sake of community, they accepted responsibility for our trials and temptations: ‘Whether we are being afflicted or whether we are being consoled,’ he says, ‘it is for your salvation and consolation’ [1 Cor 1.6]. They received the law from the Lord when he said, ‘No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ [Jn 15.13]. They themselves have handed on this law to us, saying, ‘If the Lord laid down his life for us, we too ought to lay down our lives for our brothers [1 Jn 3.16], and again, ‘Bear one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ [Gal 6.2].” (Mark the Monk Counsels on the Spiritual Life [SVS Press 2009] pp. 248-289)
Mark says the apostles and saints take responsibility for us and our sanctification. This is in no way to suggest that they replace Christ as Savior, of have any power of their own to save us. But they are teachers with whom we can have personal relationships. Just as a teacher bears responsibility for his or her students, the saints bear responsibility for handing on the faith to us, and we bear the same responsibility for the sanctification of those whom we influence. At its best, this responsibility takes the form of conformity to the likeness of Christ, with these wise teachers laying down their lives for future generations of the Church, imitating and participating in what Christ did for all of us. The saints teach not in an impersonal way, merely passing along objective knowledge, but in a profoundly embodied way, suffering to bring us the Word.
This means that celebrating the communion with the saints is about more than recalling their examples. It’s about entering deeper into relationship with brothers and sisters in Christ who have shared Christ with us through their own sufferings. When we read the New Testament epistles, we’re direct beneficiaries of the sufferings Paul endured which shaped him into the likeness of Christ. Reading this quote from Mark together, we are all personal and direct recipients of the wisdom gained through Mark’s ascetic struggles. Twenty centuries later, those who read about the life of Mother Teresa become beneficiaries of her sufferings, gaining inspiration or encouragement from her. And each of these saints had earlier saints from whom they directly benefited. Mother Teresa was inspired by St. Therese of Lisieux. Mark the Monk may have been a disciple of St. John Chrysostom. When we look the holy examples of the great cloud of witnesses around us, we in turn are shaped to become such witnesses for others. And as we’re shaped to become such witnesses, we start to bear the same responsibility to allow others to profit from our pursuit of Christ and sharing in His sufferings. Such grace and such responsibility fills me with thankfulness to God, and to all the saints. Let us keep the feast.